From the Homeless Corner: Declare a Shelter Crisis
Robert Cox: I’m not just a squishy liberal. I’m an ex-marine, a retired educator with a Ph.D. in philosophy and literature, a senior activist with a nice little government stipend, which gives me the freedom to do the important work of a citizen. I have no agenda beyond a desire to reduce the suffering caused by homelessness. I believe we should spend more time on healing our communities, and less time on figuring out how to take them back. Law enforcement has its place, but it’s not the solution. Ask any cop.
cIn last week’s column I described how local non-profits and government employees came together around a plan to dramatically reduced the harm caused to the homeless while mitigating their negative impact on our communities. After meeting with representatives from many of the agencies involved, I’m impressed by the quality of their plan, which is designed to provide a pillow in a safe place for anyone without shelter or housing. Money is an issue, of course, but it turns out that a major barrier to acquiring additional resources, and not just money, is the reluctance of the County Board of Supervisors to sign onto legislation declaring a shelter crisis.
It seems to me that the Board’s decision to commission a private company to explore the nature of homelessness in Humboldt County was a mistake. Instead of engaging with the major on-the-ground stakeholders, including members of the homeless coalition, the Board elected to bring in experts, which has left all of us with an expensive study and a set of recommendations that point to unavailable solutions; there simply isn’t anything like sufficient affordable housing available. And there won’t be any time soon.
Fortunately, the shelter crisis declaration, if signed, presents the County with a second chance to get it right—to sit down with local people whose expertise and lived experience could open the door to finding solutions based on a shared intention of simply trusting in a democratic process aimed at promoting the general welfare. Moreover, it could turn out that we will all re-learn the important lesson about why democracy is superior to other forms of governance. After all democracy is about more than just voting. And outsourcing responsibility for addressing the homeless problem was essentially anti-democratic. But, fortunately it’s not too late to give democracy a chance.
I recently attended a Board Meeting: the chambers were packed with concerned citizens, the majority of whom came to support placing the shelter crisis on the Board’s agenda— hopefully, on the way to forming a Task Force “that includes representatives from all stakeholder groups to develop services and land access to successfully relocate all homeless people temporarily into multiple legal sanctuary camps to tiny house villages… in available areas UNTIL there are adequate and accessible shelter beds or low income housing available for these persons.”
Approximately 20 people provided verbal and/or written statements to the Board. Signed petitions were submitted. The comments were marked by strong feelings for the 1,330 homeless people currently surviving in Humboldt County, alarm over their impact on our communities, and a commitment to pitch in and help. The sentiments expressed included: “We want to share in your responsibility to protect public health.” “Get the red tape out of the way, and let’s do something together.” “It’s time to act.” “The problem is only getting worse. “ “Do your job.” “We’re sick and tired of your denial and failure to act.” “People are dying.” “It will even reduce costs” A long list of the names of people who have died on the street was read. Do you hear the cry for a democratic solution?
Before the meeting, the Affordable Homeless Housing Alternatives provided the Board with arguments in favor of placing the crisis declaration on their agenda, because doing so:
“will allow public input and discussion of the lack of housing for homeless people in the county. There¹s tremendous value in declaring a shelter crisis in Humboldt County: increased funding for services and savings in public health and safety. In a rural county, with a widespread chronically homeless population, a county shelter crisis declaration can support solutions. California legislation on shelter crises was intended to allow elected bodies to relax zoning, not incur liability, and be broadly applicable. This state law was intended to be a way for a county or city to give critical assistance to efforts to create multiple solutions to this crisis of lack of housing. The city of Eureka, so far, has applied its shelter crisis declaration very narrowly. A countywide, general declaration would be helpful to create housing solutions across the county.
California’s Department of Housing and Community Development and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development are looking at counties to see who’s supporting solutions for their communities. There’s a broad spectrum of potential support; many lenders and foundations want to add to and contribute to county supported efforts. County support, via this declaration, will be used in grant applications to federal, state, local public and private lenders. Staff interpretations of rules and regulations that might otherwise bar a project will be viewed under a different light. A declaration gives clear direction to all decision makers about what projects and programs to support.
…The intent of the shelter declaration is to trigger a state law that allows jurisdictions to wave requirements that prevent emergency shelters from operating. Permits and approvals can be entirely waived as needed. Projects can be moved up in priority, allowing projects housing homeless persons immediately. The county agencies (Department of Health and Human Services, Building and Planning, Department of Public Works) have tremendous power to assist homeless housing allowed by the shelter crisis declaration.
This is a crisis. People are being injured. The lack of adequate shelter has been recognized by the state and it has passed legislation to enable the counties to take all of the steps within the power of county governments without the normal liability. This power can have far more economic impacts on public health and safety, and cost savings related to emergency services, hospitalization, law enforcement and incarceration than any specific grant or funding. The legislation was targeted in part to allow things like “tiny house” communities to be formed and constructed within reasonable health and safety considerations that are far, far less costly. Other California cities and counties are using shelter crises now.
AHHA cannot urge the Board of Supervisors more strongly to acknowledge this shelter crisis, by simply declaring this county to be impacted by a severe shortage of housing, affordable housing, emergency housing and areas that allow impoverished citizens to exist safely near necessary services.
The emergency shelter declaration can go several steps further by identifying county controlled property for use as emergency shelter. In San Francisco and other jurisdictions this has included warehouses, schools and other property that can be safely used to allow people to shelter in tents, RVs and cars. These are supervised settings where services can be delivered and where police can provide security for all. There are now many elderly and ailing citizens facing a winter without housing, without secured storage, without a legal address necessary to even begin to get assistance.
These are unfortunate times and a shelter declaration is a necessary first step in this county, in order to prevent further tragedies.”
The Homeless Coalition hoped to open a shelter on the 2nd of December. It’s the 28th today, and they still haven’t found available space. It’s cold. Nine people have died on our streets so far this year. Isn’t it time to sign the declaration, and to begin a democratic dialogue?